City of the future concept

Liquid crystals could be used to make computers, MIT study says

Image credit: Foto 79756601 © Uberxoma |

Researchers claim that ripples and imperfections in liquid crystals like those found in LCD TVs could be used to build a new type of computer.

A pair of researchers have found evidence suggesting that a new kind of computer could be built based on liquid crystals rather than silicon.

According to the article published in the journal Science Advances, the computer would be built using the orientation of the liquid crystal molecules - similar to those found in LCD TVs – to store data, with calculations expected to look like "ripples" through the liquid. 

If successful, the computer design made by Žiga Kos at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia and Jörn Dunkel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology would provide an alternative to electronics for the building of computers.

Liquid crystals consist of rod-shaped molecules that slosh around like a fluid. In the case of nematic liquid crystals, these molecules are mostly parallel to each other, to the point of the odd molecule that faces the wrong way having to be removed for the development of TV screens. This uniformity is however key for building a liquid crystal computer, according to Kos.

Nbits pinned to an LC defect line.

Nbits pinned to an LC defect line. / MIT

Image credit: MIT

In contrast to ordinary computers, which store information as a series of bits, in Kos and Dunkel’s liquid crystal computer, the information would translate the data into a series of defective orientations, where every different degree of misalignment with other molecules would codify a specific value. By avoiding using binary bits, the device could process an amount of information analogous to that of quantum computers.

Once the data has been stored, the computer would then use electric fields to manipulate the molecules and perform basic calculations in a similar way to standard logic gates.  

In the past, other researchers have already successfully moved and assembled liquid crystal defects into patterns with electric fields in experiments, so the most basic techniques for starting to build a nematic liquid crystal computer already exist, said Kos. 

To find out if their approach would work, the researchers first drew up theories to describe how such calculations would take place. They then created simulations based on their theories (showing a four-nbit configuration realising universal classical NOR and NAND gates) and found that their ideas appeared to be sound.

In their article, the scientists suggested their approach is ready for testing should a team of engineers be interested.

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